Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences
Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences

OSU-CHS News > 2015

April 9, 2015

Breaking through depression

OSU Center for Health Sciences researchers hope to find a new treatment for major depressive disorders by studying neuroinflammation.

Randall Davis wants to find new treatments for one of the leading causes of disability in the nation.

“Brain disorders represent a huge burden, both in terms of human suffering and economic costs, and major depressive disorder is one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S.,” said Davis, head of the biomedical sciences graduate program at OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. “Right here in Oklahoma, we rank in the top 10 states for the number of people with depression.”

Davis is leading a team of researchers examining the effect neuroinflammation has on the development of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and major depressive disorder. Neuroinflammation is the inflammation of the nervous tissue and can be caused by a number of factors.

“We have found that neuroinflammation is a symptom present in many different disorders that affect the brain and nervous system,” said Davis. “Our study could help determine if treating neuroinflammation will help provide relief for people with these disorders.”

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 16 million people age 18 or older, or 6.9 percent of the U.S. adult population, have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Effective treatments tend to vary greatly depending on the individual and it can be challenging for physicians to find a treatment combination that works. That’s why the need for new treatment options continues to increase.

“We recognize that it can be difficult to develop one single treatment that works well for the many people affected by these depressive disorders,” said Dr. Kayse Shrum, OSU Center for Health Sciences president. “The research by Dr. Davis and his team has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people who, in some extreme cases, find it difficult to even get out of bed.”

With a biomedical research grant from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, Davis and his research partners, Thomas Curtis, Ph.D., and Craig Stevens, Ph.D., are specifically examining the therapeutic effect of a chemical, beta-funaltrexamine, that counteracts the effects of narcotics in the central nervous system.

“There are few relatively few drugs on the market that effectively reduce neuroinflammation, so the results we have seen with this compound are promising. While working with beta-funaltrexamine seven years ago on a different project, we observed that it had an anti-inflammatory effect,” said Davis. “That finding was unexpected and provided us with an opportunity to study how this effect could translate to potential treatments for depression.”

The OSU-CHS researchers bring a variety of experience to the project. Davis is a leader in neuroinflammation research, Stevens is an expert on opiates and drug combinations and Curtis brings expertise on behavior patterns. The combination will enable the team to evaluate the chemical’s effects from a variety of perspectives.

The team is also working with a post-doctoral fellow and biomedical sciences graduate students at OSU-CHS as they conduct the research.

During the three-year project, researchers hope to gain enough information about the chemical’s effects and how it works to provide direction for future studies on its use in treating depressive disorders.

“The study is the first of many steps to potentially develop a new form of treatment,” said Davis. “We are the only group looking at the potential use of beta-funaltrexamine as a treatment for neuroinflammation and depression, but our hope is that our findings open the doors to further research.”

The team hopes that the drug can be used in combination with others currently on the market to more effectively treat depression and other neurological disorders.

“With millions of people suffering daily from depression, we hope this research is a big step forward in developing new treatment protocols,” said Davis. “The impact that would have on the health of our state would be incredible.”


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